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GOP Plan Raises Transit Spending

Va. Proposal Seeks Nearly $1 Billion Over Next 11/2 Years

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Jan. 4 -- Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell on Tuesday proposed boosting transportation spending by almost $1 billion over the next year and a half, and said the state should commit to investing hundreds of millions more through the end of the decade.

Howell (R), whose Stafford district has increasingly become part of the crowded Northern Virginia region, told reporters and lobbyists at a Capitol news conference that the state must find a way to make its transportation budget smarter and more effective.

Republican Transportation Plan

Here are some highlights of the transportation improvement plan proposed yesterday by Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

• Spend an additional $938.5 million for transportation over the next year and a half, and spend $552 million of that annually in future years.

• No new taxes to finance the spending. About a third of the program would be financed by tax collections that exceed expectations because of a rapidly expanding state economy.

• Provide new incentives for local governments to play a larger role in funding local roads by increasing state financial support for local transportation projects.

• Repay money taken from the state's Transportation Trust Fund, the traditional source of funding for projects.

• Pass a constitutional amendment that would protect the fund from diversion to other uses.

• Promote more private-sector participation in transportation projects through public-private partnerships.

• Establish a Commission on Innovative Transportation Solutions, composed of private-sector management experts, state lawmakers and local officials.

_____Related Articles_____
Going 'Outside the Box' on Transportation (The Washington Post, Jan 4, 2005)
Transportation Proposals (The Washington Post, Jan 4, 2005)

"Our goal has been and continues to be to accelerate changing the status quo in Virginia transportation," Howell said in describing his plan. "It's not a panacea. It's not a silver bullet. With such an enormous, huge problem that we've gotten ourselves into, it's going to take a while and a whole lot of different approaches."

Howell's announcement of a plan for "Sensible Solutions" is the second major push for transportation funds in the upcoming General Assembly session. Last month, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) proposed using $824 million for road-building, transit improvements and matching funds for public-private ventures. Most of that would be a one-time expense.

Both proposals come after last year's decision to abandon efforts to ease congestion on the state's road network as part of a tax and budget compromise.

In a statement, Warner praised Howell's plan for recognizing "the need for innovative new approaches to transportation in Virginia and the need to pay off deficits on completed highway projects."

But the Democratic governor stopped short of endorsing Howell's program, saying he needed to "look very carefully at the long-term budget implications of these ongoing commitments."

Advocates for transportation improvements praised the Republican plan and said they especially like the promise of a continuing commitment of funds.

But they said the amounts proposed by Howell are not enough. Dick Daugherity, a lobbyist for the road builders, said Howell's proposal is only marginally better than Warner's.

"Obviously, this falls short," Daugherity said.

Under the plan announced by Howell, House Republicans will push for an additional $938 million for transportation.

About a third of that would be financed by tax collections that are higher than expected, fueled by a rapidly expanding state economy. But unlike Warner's plan, Howell said the GOP effort would create a new, continuous source of money.

About $100 million a year would be raised by increasing the fees charged to drivers caught speeding or violating other rules of the road. An additional $130 million a year from taxes on auto insurance premiums would be shifted from the state's operating fund.

In 2000, the General Assembly passed a similar law shifting insurance taxes. But lawmakers have refused to make the transfer for the past several years, saying the money was needed to help pay for the rising cost of health care, education and public safety.

Howell said Tuesday that there "are no guarantees. We just have to do the best we can on that."

The GOP plan proposes to make it easier for private companies to join with state government to build or maintain roads. House Republicans also are calling for a new transportation commission to study innovative concepts, and a constitutional amendment that would keep lawmakers from removing money from the state's main transportation fund.

Over the next six years, Howell said the plan would increase state spending on transportation by $1.8 billion.

"Governor Warner took a positive step last month. I want to thank the governor for presenting, like the House Republicans, a transportation plan that does not include a gas tax increase or any other general tax increase," Howell said. "We can work with the governor on transportation issues."

William D. Lecos, chief executive of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, praised Howell for offering "a number of positive measures." But he urged the political leaders to adopt "even greater funding and the innovative financing measures needed to adequately address the issue."

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